Pete Perkins (Tommy Lee Jones), a ranch hand living in a small south Texas town, is shocked to learn his buddy, Melquiades Estrada (Julio Cedillo) is dead. He attempts to get Belmont (Dwight Yoakam), the local sheriff, to look into the matter, but the sheriff isn't that concerned about one more dead Mexican. Pete soon learns a new Border Patrol agent, Mike Norton (Barry Pepper), may have been responsible. Pete and Melquiades talked a lot; if you were riding the range with no one other than a single human and many cows or horses, you would talk a lot as well. They talked about Estrada's hometown in Mexico and his desire to return there and bring his wife and children back to the States. Pete promised his friend that in the event something happened to him, he would ensure he was returned to his home for burial. Now that his friend is dead, Pete enlists the aid of the unwilling Mike and the two men begin a long journey into Mexico, with a corpse on the back of one horse.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada", directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones, is a very good neo-Western. Yes, the main characters ride horses and visit dusty, small towns with few modern conveniences. But this isn't really a Western. It is about two men making a journey, two women learning about themselves, and a man fulfilling a promise to his friend.
The film begins with Pete identifying the corpse. A title announces "The First Burial of Melquiades Estrada". As Pete begins to ask questions, the film intercuts an earlier storyline which will eventually explain to us the circumstances surrounding the ranch hands' death. Then, a little bit later, yet another storyline begins, giving us a feel of Pete and Melquiades' life and friendship together. This shifting narrative allows Jones to condense a story that would take hours to tell into the space of a normal film. This slightly unique method of telling the tale also adds a level of interest to the film. As Jones goes about presenting the various storylines, two things capture our attention. The first is the acting, which is universally very good. The second is that Jones is only going to tell us what he wants, when he wants us to know it. He is in control and he is manipulating us, and the story to a large degree. When we realize we are in the hands of a director with skill, we can let go and enjoy the ride. Jones will help us keep track of everything.
Now let's return to the acting. Everyone does an excellent job of bringing their emotionally distant characters to life. Jones heads the cast and, thankfully, does a great job, erasing the bad memories of his last film "Man of the House". Usually a very good, dependable actor, it is nice to see him returning to a film, and genre, that does his talents proud. He probably used part of his paycheck from the previous big budget studio flop to help finance this small, independent feature. Right? Sure, let's use that as an excuse and never speak of "Man of the House" again.
The role is tailor made for Jones. He simply looks like he belongs on a horse, either as a ranch hand or lawman. Because the film is set in modern day, the role takes on a sad quality; it almost appears as though Pete is getting lost in the modernization of the world. Unable to fit in, he takes jobs which require that he doesn't have to interact with many people. Jones makes the character's loneliness palpable, especially in the moments he is forced to interact with others.
Barry Pepper is also very good as Mike, the new Border Patrol agent in the small truck stop, er.... Town. The most volatile character in the film, he goes through the most showy, pronounced change. Yet all through this, he controls his emotions just enough to make them seem natural or the changing situations. He is kidnapped, recaptures, bitten by a snake and much more. This role could so easily have gone over the top that it is a testament to both Pepper's skill as an actor and Jones' skill as a director.
Melissa Leo turns in another memorable supporting performance as Rachel, a waitress at the truck stop caf. Married to the cook, she is bored out of her skull. But she has lived in the small town for so long she has created diversions and ways to remain occupied. January Jones plays Lou Ann, Mike's very bored wife. The two women form a friendship and it is interesting to watch how similar they are now and how different as well. When Rachel (Leo) meets the younger woman, she recognizes herself so many years ago. She takes the younger woman under her wing, her new project, teaching her how to deal with the boredom of life in the small town. But Lou Ann soon realizes that she has to make some changes, or she will end up exactly like Rachel. During one of the storylines, both women actually meet and get to know Melquiades, to a certain extent.
"The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada" is a very well made, thoughtful film about a group of people, some of whom would probably wish to live alone, but are forced to interact with one another.